Five Takeaways From “Boston’s Life Science Disruptors”

Xconomy Boston — 

The monsoon that drenched Boston before Xconomy’s biotech gathering on Wednesday was apropos; there’ve been storm clouds over the industry for a few weeks now. So much so that Flagship Ventures CEO Noubar Afeyan, uncharacteristically flashing a suit and tie, quipped: “Everybody’s been predicting the death of the IPO window for awhile, so I thought this would be the wake.”

But beneath the rainclouds there was optimism. And the downpour abated just in time for the speakers to take the stage at “Boston’s Life Science Disruptors” at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge. What plummeting stocks, drug pricing debates, and closing IPO windows? This was about the reward you get for coming up with new ideas and figuring out how to turn them into businesses in biotech. It was an inside look at how three disparate companies—Synlogic, Foundation Medicine (NASDAQ: FMI), and Seres Therapeutics (NASDAQ: MCRB)—were shaped, and are trying to make their way. (Foundation and Seres, of course, had the benefit of being able to raise a bunch of cash in IPOs while the biotech bull market raged.)

Special thanks to everyone for filling up the house on a dreary Boston day. In particular to our speakers: Michael Pellini, CEO of Foundation; Alexis Borisy, partner at Third Rock Ventures; James Collins, biological engineering professor at MIT; Jose-Carlos Gutierrez-Ramos, CEO of Synlogic; Flagship CEO Afeyan; and Roger Pomerantz, CEO of Seres.

Thanks also to our event host, Novartis, and our sponsors: BDO, Boston Children’s Hospital, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, New England Lab, and The Richmond Group. Thanks as well to our national partner, Alexandria Real Estate Equities, and charter underwriter, Biogen. (Photos from Keith Spiro Photography to come soon, as per usual.)

With that, here’s a taste of what emerged from the lively discussion.

Tumor profiling as a business: many questions, both then and now. Even despite Foundation’s successful IPO and a big deal with Roche earlier this year, there are questions surrounding its prospects. Investors sank its stock a few months ago when sales of its tumor profiling tests slowed and the company lowered its estimates for the year. As Borisy, the chairman and co-founder of Foundation noted, how to make a business out of Foundation was always the center of intense debate among its backers.

“There were all sorts of objections,” he said. “These were questions that would turn over again and again.”

To list a few: Would Foundation have any true intellectual property to protect itself? How would Foundation’s tests be regulated? How can you establish a business in an area where the underlying technology is evolving at warp speed? And, of course, reimbursement—who is going to pay for it?

Even today, you can safely say Foundation doesn’t have all the answers to these questions. So why did Borisy and others take the risk? “There was a feeling that there was an opportunity here where the time was absolutely right—that this was the right moment from a science and medicine perspective, that these were the best founders you could possibly imagine, with a deep moral imperative that this had to happen, and that it had to be done right.”

Cool technology. Now, what to we do with it? Atlas Venture’s Peter Barrett and Ankit Mahadevia were interested in MIT professor Jim Collins and protégé Timothy Lu’s latest work. The synthetic biology specialists had two things cooking: a tools platform to “rewire organisms,” and an … Next Page »

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